Mike Tharp: A lesson in capitol politics

02/20/2010 2:41 AM

02/21/2010 8:44 AM

The bus left city hall at 6 a.m. On board were 18 members of Leadership Merced's Class 25, a few citizens who paid for the privilege of tagging along on the group's "Government/Media Day" in Sacramento, and two members of Class 24, Dana Davidson of the city of Merced and Emma Loethen of Merced Active 20-30, the day's leaders.

As Jerry, the driver, steered the bus through the tule fog enveloping Highway 99, Nathan Quevedo, public information officer for the Merced County Office of Education and a part-time Sun-Star copy editor, provided the morning's briefings and, hopefully, a little entertainment for the trip.

Leadership Merced, sponsored by the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, brings in a group of potential community leaders one day a month for 10 months. They learn about the dimensions, processes and personalities important to our county's survival and progress. The editor was in last year's class, The Forevermores, and found the experience invaluable in understanding how our county works and who helps make it work.

And in making a bunch of new friends.

A special treat was sitting next to Scott Jason, for three years a sterling Sun-Star reporter who last fall began doing PR for UC Merced. Sorry, Patti Istas (his boss) -- Scott's still a newsie at heart.

Once in the Capitol we sat in several meetings with members of One Voice, a group that lobbies for our county's interests in the state and Washington, D.C. Mayor Bill Spriggs and others pitched our priorities to a variety of state officials.

They listed our most pressing needs: The Highway 152 bypass in Los Banos; replacing the Buhach Interchange on the 99 -- the only place traffic merges off the highway from the fast lane; the prevailing wage, based on high Bay Area scales that hurt our redevelopment efforts and add significant costs to projects in the Valley; and enterprise zones, which help us attract business.

If it sounds like a policy wonk's dream, that's because it is. But that's how the legislative sausage is made -- countless face-time meetings with state bureaucrats whose policy decisions help determine our future.

The state officials offered little in the way of specifics, let alone concrete solutions. But they all made suggestions on how to improve our chances of getting our priorities on the capital's radar and how to try to shoehorn the money to fund them.

We also got to watch part of a state Senate session from the public balcony. The senators, sitting beneath a portrait of a standing George Washington, and under a Latin phrase that means "A senator's duty is to protect the people's liberty," voted on several measures in regular and extraordinary sessions.

Democracy at work. Green buttons pushed as senators voted "aye," red for "no." Sen. Jeff Denham voted "no" five times (consistent with his limited government, antispending approach) and "aye" once (for a community college bill). He also mentioned Leadership Merced to the chamber and waved at us.

And he bought us breakfast on the bus from our own columnist Amanda De Jager Friedman's Piano Caffe. (Thanks to Publisher Debbie Kuykendall, the Sun-Star bought us lunch in the Capitol dining room.)

The most trenchant words came from Dwight Stenbakken, deputy director of the League of California Cities. As we ate, he told us the place we'd just visited, the Senate Chamber, and the Assembly, were "dysfunctional." Elaborating, he said, "We don't think we (California cities) can do a deal up there and expect it to stick."

He called for a return to the days of separating state revenues from local government revenues. The league has started a ballot measure calling for that. And the view from here -- based on the lack of positive, constructive action from most of our electeds -- is that the initiative is a good idea.

Assembly member Cathleen Galgiani also talked to us during lunch. Our assembly member cited, among other actions, her high-speed rail bond measure put on the ballot in 2008. That clearly helped the state get $2.25 billion from the feds for the project. "I'm going to continue to stay focused on jobs," she told us.

The view from here is that she and Denham -- political opposites -- are both working for our best interests.

Highlight of the day was the tour we took with Julia Jaw, a Taiwan-born guide who speaks five languages. She regaled us with neat historical details about the place where our laws have been made since 1871.

Among the cool historical facts:

The Capitol got electricity in 1900, but it kept both gas and electric lights burning for three years, to make sure Thomas Edison's new-fangled invention worked.

The State Treasury used to be one room in the Capitol; now it's a five-story building all its own.

The Department of Motor Vehicles was a desk in the Secretary of State's office, and people had to come there to get their driver's licenses, all the way from San Diego. Today, we know how broad is the DMV's reach.

In 1906, only two women worked in the Capitol -- one in Treasury, one in the Secretary of State's office. In a Taliban-like atmosphere, they had to wear clothing down to their wrists and to the top of their shoes.

On one floor a half-million pieces of tile -- each one-third the size of a Lotto ticket -- were cleaned, polished and glued back during one of the building's several renovations.

Thirty-eight portraits of governors hang on the walls. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s looks "unfinished," Julia told us, because the present attorney general said when he left office that "my duty at the Capitol is not done yet." He's running for governor again because the two-term limit law was changed in 1992. "Who wants to be governor of California for eight years?" Julia asked.

Earl Warren served longest as governor, 10 years. Milton Latham the shortest, five days, then he appointed himself to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

We couldn't see the Governator because we didn't have an appointment. But we got to see the bronze smiling bear, and an unsmiling state trooper, in front of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office.

The Assembly Chamber is bedecked in green, after the British House of Commons. Their chamber hosts a portrait of Lincoln and another Latin phrase that means, "A legislator's duty is to make just law."

The Capitol dome is 124 feet high.

Julia took us down some back stairs to show us a special treat she doesn't usually show other tours.

The Moon Tree.

It was planted some 40 years ago from seeds taken to the moon in 1969. Only five of the seeds germinated. The yard-thick stately redwood reaching toward the sky was one of them.

We can consider it a symbol of what our electeds could achieve -- unlike Denham and Galgiani who remember where they're from -- if they had not forgotten their roots.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

Editor's Choice Videos

Join the Discussion

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Terms of Service